M.A.K. Adventures: Marrakesh, Morocco

Arriving in any foreign country at night is often a disorienting experience—fresh off the plane, you see road signs differently, buildings and streets are hard to see, a city changes gears and feels, sometimes, empty; arrive in Marrakesh at night and these feelings are intensified exponentially. Read on for tips, insights, and a very special recipe for traditional mint tea!

 
 

We arrived in Marrakesh around 8PM and a short 15 minutes later we were guided through the abandoned, dark alleyways of the Marrakech medina and then led into a hidden oasis: our hotel for the next 5 days—a riad, also known as a traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard or garden. The confusion and disorientation from a short burst of culture shock slowly melted away.

Riad Janneman is definitely one of the most beautiful properties in Marrakesh; a small, five-room property where each room is completely unique and beautifully designed. Welcomed by Anouar and Mohamed, two of the nicest and most accommodating people we’ve met in all of our travels, this was an incredibly soothing welcome amidst the chaos outside.

For the record, we weren’t paying a million bucks either: we had a simple bedroom adorned with clean, chic Moroccan furnishings and some Italian design influences. Our bathroom airy and full of marble, with very modern fixtures and touches; however, the real gem was our own private outdoor terrace, located between the bedroom and bathroom. The open-air terrace had a small round table in front of a 20+ foot waterfall—it pains us to give out the details of this property as we want it to be kept a secret!

After settling into our home for the next week, Anouar brought us freshly-brewed mint tea. We love Moroccan mint tea and his batch was particularly special—the best we ever had in fact. On the last night of our stay Anouar actually showed us the secret to his special, ancestral recipe, so we thought we’d share it with you!

Traditional Mint Tea

Moroccan Mint Tea Recipe for Two – recipe courtesy of Anouar’s grandfather

Makes 2 servings

Notes: following these steps diligently makes the difference between a truly great tea and an ordinary one. After tasting more mint teas than we could count, this recipe made far and away the best tea we had during our time in Morocco.

Ingredients:

  • 3 teaspoons green tea (best quality – gunpowder works here)
  • Large handful of mint (stems and all)
  • Granulated sugar (to taste)
  • Boiling water

Recipe:

  1. Put the green tea into the teapot (if you happen to have a traditional Moroccan tea pot, certainly use it; if not, a saucepot will work just fine)
  2. First steep: steep the tea with 5 ounces of boiling water for 10 seconds. Immediately after, pour this liquid out into a separate cup and save for later—this is the “clean steep”
  3. Second steep: fill the teapot with 5 ounces of boiling water again for 10 seconds. This time, pour the liquid out and throw away this steep—this is tea that is too “dirty” to use in the tea.
  4. Place the mint in the teapot, then pour the first “clean steep” tea in. Fill the rest with boiling water, add 2-3 teaspoons of sugar (for the classic and very sweet Moroccan mint tea flavor)
  5. Put the teapot directly on the burner (high heat) for one minute
  6. Mix the tea: pour (never stir!) the boiling tea/liquid into a teacup, then pour it back into the teapot to mix the flavors (repeat this process 3-4 times)
  7. Serve: pour tea from high in the air directly into the cups: this aerates the top layer of the tea and gives it a frothy texture—serving traditional mint tea without this is unacceptable (says Anouar’s grandfather). He’s right, it totally makes a difference!
  • Serving tips: serve with napkins so the teacups and teapot can be held properly (the cups are extremely hot)

 

Exploring Marrakesh

Our first few days were spent exploring the medina, the Jema el-Fnaa (the main market square), and the souks (bazaar). By day, the narrow alleyways of the medina, overflowing with souks, were filled with people and even more color—a photographer’s dream. As Yves Saint Laurent correctly pointed out during his travels to Marrakech, “this city taught me color,” and we couldn’t agree more.

Marrakesh is truly a kaleidoscope of color: bright terracotta walls surround you, a zillion colors of tapestry and pottery pop out of the souks, oranges and yellows radiate from the towering cones of spices in the spice souk, and the deepest blues that you’ve ever seen. Colors so vibrant that beg you to explore more…

The souks overwhelm all of the senses: unusual smells—some interesting, mostly unpleasant—crowded and incomprehensibly tiny dirt roads, and vendors beckoning you into their tiny shops in five different languages; however, if you’re patient you may find a few diamonds in the rough… which is what we did. By night, the souks close up shop, but the Jema el-Fnaa square comes to life. Think of a Moroccan zoo, but buzzing with food, culture, and entertainment.

In almost all of our encounters with Moroccan people they were kind, generous, and helpful, sometimes to a fault. For the most part, Morocco is an impoverished country—the average daily income is $10 per day. This kind of poverty coupled with a never-ending influx of tourist dollars creates an environment that feels as though the whole town is out to get your money, which is correct to some extent: young ‘guides’ will take you on a wild goose chase through the souk until they request money for the service they just provided, snake charmers and other performers will incessantly pester for money after a photo, preying on the Western sense of ‘obligation to buy’, the list goes on…

By the same token, Moroccans are generally extremely hospitable and trusting given the circumstances. We saw this first hand when Maguire was buying some gifts to take home and didn’t have enough cash; the shopkeeper allowed us to take our gifts with us and come back the next day with the money—unheard of in any other place that we’ve traveled. The sensibility of serving mint tea to any guest who walks through their doors speaks volumes about their view on hospitality. When a Moroccan says “my house is your house,” you should believe it wholeheartedly.

Hammam

Hammam is an extremely important part of Moroccan life and culture; essentially, it’s a public bathhouse, similar to a Turkish steam bath, where Moroccans of all ages go to scrub and wash themselves once a week. For us toursits, it’s typically a private spa where you are covered in a traditional black soap, which is allowed to soak into the skin for 10 minutes, and then you get aggressively scrubbed with an exfoliating glove and finally rinsed with buckets of warm water.

Moroccan black soap is a buttery soap made of vegetable paste and black olives… interesting smell to stay the least. It’s extremely rich in Vitamin E and in the 19th century it was THE go-to product for dermatology.

We ‘hammamed’ at Heritage Spa, which had multiple enticing options: a sea salt scrub, bitter orange and argan oil, and a eucalyptus treatment. After 30 minutes of a steaming hot, somewhat-painful, and extremely satisfying body rub, your skin is left feeling soft as a baby!

Cuisine

Moroccan food is what you would expect given the geography—heavy on the spices, big flavors, Mediterranean cuisine with exotic ingredients: olives, preserved lemons, harissa, and tagines, but what else? Read on…

Beyond the assortment of tagines—the name of the traditional cone-shaped cooking pot—that are in every restaurant in Marrakech, vegetables and salads are our newfound favorites in Moroccan cuisine. And of course olives…

Vegetable dishes remind you of Greek staples like baba ganoush ortabbouleh with some more exotic and spicy flavors. These vegetable dishes are typically cooked but served at room temperature and truth be told, they’re perfect this way. While Greece has fresh and light vegetable dishes, Morocco dominates in the spice arena: typically fresh-ground and alluringly fragrant varieties straight from the spice souk—cumin, paprika, saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, and a million more. 

Fresh salads on the other hand are reminiscent of spiced and fresh Mexican, similar to pico de gallo: heavy on the tomatoes, onion, and cucumber, and of course lots of spice. Typically served in small portions, these make for a fantastic appetizer and they were something we seemingly never got tired of after a whole week eating them.

We love a plate of warm fresh bread with some nice salty butter, especially in France. You’d think the massive influence of French culture in Morocco would bring over some decent bread recipes… sadly that’s not the case. Bread in Morocco typically has very little flavor or texture; but somehow when it’s served with the flavorful, dip-friendly dishes like a chicken tagine or zaalouk(eggplant and tomato salad) it works wonderfully.

Restaurants

Some of our truly great meals were at the traditional upscale Maison Arabe, the funky ex-pat rooftop café Nomad in the heart of the souks, and at theGrand Café de la Poste—once you’re sick of tagines after 5 days it’s almost necessary to venture into the ‘new city’ and indulge in some classic and delicious French food.

Our more adventurous meal was in the crazy Jema El-Fnaa square—eating sidewalk delicacies is inherently risky in any country, but especially in Morocco: food safety and sanitation standards are visibly lower than what we all expect; raw meat left outside in the heat, flies buzzing around every type of food in an outdoor market, drinks served in glass cups with no visible sinks around…

The risks, as with any street food, come with rewards: you finally feel totally immersed in the local culture, free from tourist-inspired menus, literally rubbing elbows with locals of all ages. After some research and a walk around the raggedy numbered shacks, Stall 32 had the universal sign of a good street vendor: a bustling line of locals. We dug into a large plate of steaming hot, classic merguez (spicy lamb or beef sausage); incredibly juicy and seriously delicious, served with a spicy tomato sauce and the infamous Moroccan bread—thankfully we walked away unscathed.

Culture/Experiences

Eating our way through Marrakesh just wasn’t enough for us… we needed to learn how to cook what we learned to love so much so we decided to take a cooking class. Souk Cuisine provided the perfect introduction to Moroccan cuisine; organized by a Dutch woman along with a handful of Moroccan women who helped us prepare their traditional recipes, we prepared a traditional feast.

In the morning we were assigned a list of items to purchase in the souks within the medina. One of the highlights was the spice souk we went to. The woman running the class had created a relationship with a particular spice vendor who was extremely knowledgeable and kind—he lead us through his collection of fresh spices and herbs while showing us tricks about how to determine the difference between real saffron and fake saffron by rubbing it between your hands and smelling.

The other highlight of the shopping experience was visiting a furan—the neighborhood oven—where a single baker works at the oven all day preparing bread for everyone in the neighborhood. Anyone can come to drop off his or her own baked goods and the baker will bake it in the brick oven; what’s even crazier is that they do it perfectly, without any instruction. Almost 30 different families had their bread in the oven when we arrived and the baker didn’t mix them up once—insanity!

After exploring the souks, we were led into a sunny, open-air riad and of course being the foodies we are, we made sure to cook the dishes we wanted. So, while everyone else snacked on harissa and bread (which is an amazing combo by the way), we snagged the cooking station with the vegetable dish we wanted to make—zaalouk, which is a spicy, flavorful fried eggplant and tomato dip.

It was pretty eye opening to cook with these Moroccan women, just theirsense of how much harissa was needed in a dish or their uncanny ability to chop parsley to a paste-like consistency—their knife skills could have competed with Marco Pierre White’s!

When we finished cooking we sat down to eat all the dishes everyone had prepared. We started with the briouates (freshly-fried vegetable rolls), followed by a delicious assortment of vegetable salads: the Moroccan salad, courgette salad, carrot salad with almonds and raisins, another salad with green peppers and tomatoes, and the zaalouk.

We finished with two tagines: a classic chicken version with preserved lemon and a rice-stuffed sardine tagine (let’s just say this was not our favorite as sardines are certainly an acquired taste). For dessert we munched on our almond coconut cookies—very similar to an American-style coconut macaroon—that we actually brought to the neighborhood oven to have baked!

After five days of exploring new smells and sights, getting dangerously lost in the most confusing streets you’ve ever seen, staying at an uber-peaceful oasis of a hotel, having pounds of dead skin vigorously scrubbed off, and getting sick of mint tea, we arrived back in Milan—with a new flavor perspective, some new ways to relax, and a handful of recipes that we’ll be sharing right here in the future for everyone to try!